Rani Arbo
& Daisy Mayhem,
Gambling Eden
(Signature Sounds, 2003)

There will be no pigeonholing Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem. The band's first album, Cocktail Swing, was an all-cover acoustic album composed of blues, jazz, bluegrass and ukulele selections. Their second offering, Gambling Eden, includes several century-old traditional folk songs, a depression-era protest song, a couple of modern ballads and five original tunes of various genres penned by Arbo and her band members. As disjointed as this eclectic collection may sound, it flows well. The connection is the sublime musicianship and artistry of everyone involved.

This talented and cohesive group is fronted by Arbo, vocalist and fiddler supreme. Arbo has been performing for more than 10 years, many of which were alongside bandmate Andrew Kinsey as part of the '90s folk 'n' bluegrass band, Salamander Crossing. In addition to Kinsey on vocals and bass, Daisy Mayhem's roster includes Arnand Nyak on vocals, guitars and mandolin, and Scott Kessel on vocals and percussion. A number of guest musicians round out the sound, including producer Dirk Powell on accordion, banjo, mandolin, mellotron and tack piano.

The group opens the CD with "Stewball," listed on the liner notes as "traditional, via Leadbelly." Leadbelly, the colorful 12-string guitar player and folk musician of the 1930s and '40s, recorded "Stewball" during his last recording sessions before his death in 1949. The instrumentation on the band's modern rendition of this song about a racehorse is just enough and the guys provide a perfect backing vocal line for Arbo's lead and fiddle.

Other traditional folk/bluegrass tunes on the disc include two noted as "traditional, from Bessie Jones," "Turtle Dove" and "O Death." Jones was a traditional folksinger from Georgia who performed during the '40s and '50s. "Turtle Dove" is a short toe-tapper with tight all band vocals. Guest musicians on trumpet and trombone are a bonus. "O Death" was recently brought to the general public by the Ralph Stanley version on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Arbo and crew do a nice job on this musical conversation with the grim reaper.

The band's original numbers include Kinsey's "Big Black Bird," Nyak's "Road to Heaven" and Arbo's "Eve," "Sparrow" and "Finland." All are well-written tunes that feature great vocals showing the group's versatility and precision, regardless of who's singing lead. "Eve" is especially pleasant with its two-part Rani harmony, and is the source of the CD title:

Paradise is only what you feel
Everything else is so real
Who told us we had this power?
I gambled Eden in an hour

Vocals are the focus on Gambling Eden. On "Closer" and "Farmer is the Man," Nayak and Kinsey, respectively, give us more of their competent, soulful leads. During the six minutes of the last track, "Farewell to Saint Delores," Arbo's compelling voice and the perfectly minimalist instrumentation may slow your heart down to a comatose rate. I can never keep my eyes open during this song.

When I reviewed the group's first CD, I invited listeners to be ready to smile and dance around the living room. For your foray into the second collection, you can use the slower pieces to take contemplative breaks from your dancing. Sip tea, curl up with the dog and ponder your life and what this gifted group might come up with next. Aside from knowing that it will be excellent, your guess is as good as mine.

- Rambles
written by Valerie Fasimpaur
published 13 December 2003

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